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French President Makes Rare Visit to Haiti

French President Francois Hollande deplanes at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, May 12, 2015.

Francois Hollande on Tuesday became only the second sitting president of France to ever visit the once prized possession of Haiti, where bountiful resources and brutal plantation slavery made it the European nation's most profitable colony some 250 years ago.

For Haiti's government and business community, the visit is a welcome opportunity to encourage more investment and highlight progress made since a devastating 2010 earthquake obliterated much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. Over the last week, the French leader has been touring the region, stopping in French Caribbean islands and Cuba, where he said his country would be a "faithful ally'' as Havana reforms its centrally planned economy.

But for some citizens of impoverished Haiti, Hollande's visit is reminding them of the debilitating costs of the country's successful slave revolt for independence. In 1825, crippled by an international embargo enforced by French warships, Haiti agreed to pay France an "independence debt'' of 150 million gold francs to compensate colonists for their losses of land and slaves. It later was reduced to 90 million gold coins.

"We Haitians know that a big reason why we are suffering today is because we were forced to pay France for our freedom. If we were not punished for our independence long ago, we would have had a better time,'' Jean-Marc Bouchet said on a dusty, unpaved street in Port-au-Prince.

About 200 protesters and a heavy police presence awaited Hollande at the Champ de Mars plaza in downtown Port-au-Prince where the president is expected to lay wreaths at the statues of heroes of Haiti's revolution.

Gymps Lucien, a 25-year-old law school student, said Hollande was not welcome unless he brought money.

"We believe French reparations should go to schools, hospitals, roads,'' he said. "Our kids should have a better life.''

The protesters were gathered near a crowd that awaited Hollande, including 51-year-old Giles Jean Sava, an unemployed father of seven. He said he disagreed with the protest and said Haitians should welcome Hollande to their country.

"Perhaps the French president can bring jobs,'' he said.

The slave uprising when it was territory known as St. Domingue secured Haiti's independence from France in 1804 and transformed it into the world's first black republic. But the debt to France crippled the Caribbean nation, which did not finish paying off the indemnity to French and American banks until 1947.

Over the years, French administrations have acknowledged the historic wrong of slavery in Haiti and other former colonies. In 2001, the French government recognized the slave trade as a crime against humanity. And during the first visit to Haiti by a sitting French president, Nicolas Sarkozy spoke soon after the 2010 quake about the "wounds of colonization.''

But French leaders, like those of other former colonial powers, consistently have dismissed assertions that they needed to pay any kind of financial debt. With an eye on the old grievance, France canceled all of Haiti's $77 million debt during Sarkozy's administration.

On Sunday, Hollande acknowledged his country's historic role in the Atlantic slave trade as he helped inaugurate a $93 million slavery memorial in Guadeloupe.

"France is able to look at its own history because France is a great nation that is afraid of nothing, especially not afraid of itself,'' he said in the French island.

During that visit, Hollande also made mention of France's "debt'' to Haiti, but French officials stressed that he was referring to a "moral debt,'' not a financial one. They say it echoes comments he made in 2013 when Hollande said France's "debt'' to Africa "cannot be the subject of a transaction.''

The campaign to win reparations from France was a cornerstone of the second administration of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. France dismissed Aristide's demands.

Two years ago, leaders of more than a dozen Caribbean countries launched an effort to seek compensation from France, Britain and the Netherlands for what they say is the lingering legacy of the Atlantic slave trade.